The Secret Tradition, Part 7: Plato

By July 30, 2014

The apostles, said Origen “saw better than Plato … what things were to be committed to writing, and how this was to be done, and what was by no means to be written to the multitude, and what was to be expressed in words, and what was not to be so conveyed.”[1] With this statement, Origen seemed to suggest that Christ’s secret teachings had things in common with Platonism.  Platonism was linked to both the apocalypses and the mysteries.  Martha Himmelfarb describes 2 Enoch’s creation description as “a blend of biblical creation and popular Platonism.”[2]  Of the apocalypses, John Turner says, “One can scarcely think of a more apt Jewish equivalent to Plato’s description of the intense light of the ultimate Goodness and Beauty awaiting anyone who would risk the ascent out of the cave of illusion.”[3]

Plato’s allegory of the cave was itself related to the mysteries, argues Anne Mary Farrell.  There was a cave near the Telesterion at Eleusis that Farrell argues that initiates would pass through.[4]  Plato made numerous references to the mysteries in his writings.  The Phaedrus’s story of the pre-mortal chorus of the Gods, argues Farrell, was particularly overt.  In this story, pre-mortal souls join the chorus of the Gods in viewing true reality beyond the outer reaches of the heavens.

Beauty it was ours to see in all its brightness in those days when with the happy and blessed chorus we behold with out own eyes that blessed vision….  We saw and were initiated into that which is rightly said to be most blessed of Mysteries.  We celebrated the secret rites being complete and perfect and without suffering the evils that awaited us in time to come.  Complete and onefold and still happy also were the apparitions which were revealed to us as initiates in pure light.[5]

The path was circular and Plato adds the pre-mortal humans are allowed to view the sights because “jealousy must stand outside the divine chorus.”[6]  Thus pre-mortal humans underwent an initiation similar to Eleusis before they came to earth, and remembering what they learned there will help them ascend back to heaven.

Plato described the soul’s falling to earth as losing its wings and forgetting what it had learned in heaven.  Yet seeing beauty on earth reminds us of the beauty we saw in heaven.  The one who has forgotten what he or she learned “or who has become defiled” will seek to gratify his or her lust while “a recent initiate … one who has seen much in heaven—when he sees a godlike face or bodily form that has captured Beauty well, first he shudders and a fear come over him like those he felt at the earlier time,” or at the pre-mortal initiation, argues Farrell.[7]  Through this process the souls begins to regrow its wings.  Plato’s dialogue on love, the Symposium, also alludes to Eleusis when it described the soul’s ascent, argues Farrell.[8]

Therefore Platonism intertwined with the rituals that may have informed the secret tradition.  Scott Brown argues that Clement’s higher teaching was fundamentally Platonic; Clement even referenced Plato’s chorus of the gods, saying that a soul “being not yet worthy of a sacred truth, but out of tune, disorderly, and hylic—it must ‘stand outside the divine chorus.’”[9]


[1] Origen, Contra Celsus, 6.6.

[2] Martha Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (New York: Oxford, 1993), 86.

[3] John D. Turner, “To See the Light: A Gnostic Appropriation of Jewish Priestly Practice and Sapiential and Apocalyptic Visionary Lore,” in Mediators of the Divine: Horizons of Prophecy, Divination, Dreams, and Theurgy in Mediterranean Antiquity (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998), 110.

[4] Anne Mary Farrell, “Plato’s Use of Eleusinian Mystery Motifs,” (PhD Dissertation, University of Texas, 1999), 16-17, 96-97.

[5] Plato, Phaedrus, 250b-c.

[6] Plato, Phaedrus, 247a.

[7] Plato, Phaedrus 250e-251a; Farrell, “Plato’s Use of Eleusinian Mystery Motifs,” 79.

[8] Farrell, “Plato’s Use of Eleusinian Mystery Motifs,” ch. 3.

[9] Scott G. Brown, “Behind the Seven Veils, I: The Gnostic Life Setting of the Mystic Gospel of Mark,” in Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?: The Secret Gospel of Mark in Debate, ed. Tony Burke (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2013), 247-83; Clement, Stromata, 5.4.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. My very Mormon understanding of the early church and the great apostasy lead to strongly doubt that the Secret Gospel of Mark was Platonic in nature. It seems more like this was a case of the theologians who were trained in Greek philosophy using their training to unpack and elaborate upon Mark’s teachings.

    Plato’s theory was that the ideal forms that we conceived rather than perceived before this life are the reason why we are able to learn concepts in this life by remembering our pre-mortal conception (not perception) of the ideal forms. I simply cannot believe that this very abstract theory has anything to do with concrete rites and teachings that would find expression within a Hebrew tradition.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

  2. Thanks for chiming in Jeff. This addresses the very old Protestant claim that Platonism corrupted early Christianity and the assertion that early Christianity was somehow fundamentally different from Greek thought. The Protestants came up with this idea specifically to attack early fathers like Clement and Origen with all their notions of pre-existence and deification. The ultimate evil, these Protestant scholars argued, was the rejection of creation ex nihilo. It’s an interesting story (see Wouter Hanegraaff’s Esotericism and the Academy) and one that was very popular in Joseph Smith’s day. JS even owned a book by one of it’s biggest advocates J.L. Mosheim. But as I note in my dissertation, JS never embraced what I call the “Platonic corruption model” but instead turned the whole thing on its head by embracing deification, pre-existence, and rejecting creation ex nihilo.

    Later LDS thinkers embraced this Protestant notion, but JS did not.

    That is, we’ve come to think as Plato as the bad guy but I think that’s a mistake especially because of the degree to which distinctive Mormon concepts can be found in Platonism like deification and eternal marriage. Plato was rather abstract, no doubt, but is still teaching certain concepts.

    Furthermore, the fathers that embraced Plato are the ones who look very Mormon, no one more than Clement of Alexandria. Clement no doubt gave a Platonic reading of Secret Mark but I think it’s a mistake to claim that this was some kind of corruption since he did so in a very Mormon-sounding way: a secret rite of initiation in which initiates advanced through stages and became like God.

    Again, there was lots of Hellenism around and the secret tradition apparently drew on both Hellenistic Judaic forms like the apocalypses and fundamentally Hellenistic practices like the mysteries. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 30, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

  3. Hmmmm. I must confess that a lot of my beliefs on this stem from Nibley, so I am willing to stand corrected.

    1) I thought creatio ex nihilo was or Greek rather than Hebrew origin? My understanding of these two traditions is more or less this.

    2) I thought that the early church fathers (Clement et al.) weren’t so much introducing Greek thought in order to supplant early Christian thought, but to “better” systematize and articulate it. Yes, I think this eventually led to a bad outcome, but was not in and of itself an immediately bad thing.

    3) The idea that Mark and the apostles before him were Platonic in any way strikes me as wrong – even if Clement and those fathers after him were.

    4) This is why I have a hard time equating the secret teachings with any kind of pre-mortal conception of the ideal forms.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  4. FYI, the Jeff in the link that I provided is a different Jeff. While I agree with that post, I’m not it’s author.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

  5. Thanks for the link, Jeff. First, creation ex nihilo was an idea invented by the Christians to try to differentiate their notion of God from the Greeks. Plato is explicit that God created out of existing material, a very common idea. I talk about this in this post. Here’s a quote: “The doctrine [creation ex nihilo] was unknown to pagan philosophy,” explains Louth, “and emerged only slowly and uncertainly in early Christian theology.” In the rise of the Arian controversy, explains Louth, both the Orthodox and the Arians agreed on creation ex nihilo. “Arius consigned the Word to the created order; the Orthodox consigned him to the realm of the (now strictly divine). Nicaea can then be seen, as Friedo Ricken has put it, as a ‘crisis for early Christian Platonism.’” “The soul’s kinship with the divine was destroyed by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo,” because the soul was now a “creature” of the divine, a created thing and not coeternal. “Neither for Plato nor for Origen were souls created: they were pre-existent and immortal.”

    So I would argue that the notion that Christianity was corrupted by Platonism is exactly backward. Instead, it was the attempts to to make Christianity less like Platonism that caused false doctrines like creation ex nihilo to creep in.

    And while it’s true that there isn’t much Platonism in Mark, there is a lot of Hellenism (including some Plato) in Paul, the earliest Christian writer. Furthermore, there’s also a whole lot of other things that aren’t in Mark: eternal marriage, deification, pre-existence, etc. Secret Mark suggests that there were higher truths that were not written down (even in Secret Mark) and Clement interpreted that higher truth to have much in common with Plato. For Clement, philosophy was given by God to bring Greeks to Christ just like the Law was given to bring the Jews to Christ. Why not?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 30, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

  6. “So I would argue that the notion that Christianity was corrupted by Platonism is exactly backward. Instead, it was the attempts to to make Christianity less like Platonism that caused false doctrines like creation ex nihilo to creep in.”

    Interesting. That’s some pretty good food for thought. As for the rest, I’m still not quite satisfied.

    The way I’ve always seen it was that Christian was pretty much a Hebrew tradition in a Hebrew packaging (the apostles). Unsurprisingly, as it moved out of its native home, it began to take on a more cosmopolitan delivery such that it came to be a Hebrew tradition in a Greek packaging (Paul). Over time, however, as its defender relied more and more upon the cosmopolitan delivery Greek thought and language became more than a mere packaging, but came to structure and define rather than merely package the core tradition (Clement). And this is when I see apostasy.

    Thus, not seeing Hellenistic thinking in Mark’s delivery is categorically different than not seeing various doctrines in his tradition. It’s pretty far easier to simply not mention various doctrines than it is to simply not express ones cultural influences. Yes, the gospel was for the Greeks, but it was not theirs to transform and restructure.

    I obviously don’t know as much as you about the time period and history. As such, I freely admit that I am projecting my own views of what is happening in the church (especially the bloggernacle) today back onto the early church. I think that the language of academics has gone from being a mere vehicle for spreading the gospel to actively transforming and restructuring its very meaning in the minds of many.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

  7. I guess I’m not sure how the view I pontificated links up with your account of how Christian shifted away from Greek philosophy. I do think that Greek philosophy was a good thing for Christianity, even if this influence wasn’t all that straight forward.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 8:16 pm

  8. I’m not an expert on this time period either, Jeff, but as I understand it, Hellenism had been pretty influential in Palestine for some time prior to Christ so there was no need to go beyond Palestine to encounter Greek thought. Christianity came out of Hellenized Judaism. Again, the apocalypses had numerous Platonic motifs.

    And in terms of differentiating between doctrines and cultural influences in Mark, keep in mind that the list I noticed that Mark left out are all found in Platonism.

    This is not to say that Plato was the fullness of the gospel or without error. Christian Platonists like Clement and Origen only took from Plato what they considered to be in harmony with Christianity and they did so because in their view the two overlapped considerably. As Clement said, “The Greek preparatory culture, therefore, with philosophy itself, is shown to have come down from God to men.” (Strom. 1.7).

    And I would agree that the influence was not straightforward: there were many different kinds of philosophy and applications. As Clement said, “And philosophy— I do not mean the Stoic, or the Platonic, or the Epicurean, or the Aristotelian, but whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety—this eclectic whole I call philosophy. But such conclusions of human reasonings, as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.” (ibid).

    But I would very much reject the claim that Clement had anything to do with leading Christians away from truth (apostasy) since he sounds the most like Mormonism of any writer in antiquity, the NT included.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 30, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

  9. I guess most of my hostility is aimed at philosophy which is what Ancient Greece is kind of known for. But this does not necessarily entail that a Greek influence just is a philosophical influence. I’ve always thought that the Greek intellectual influence manifested itself in the Pharisees, etc. whose learning was a bit of a stumbling block to them. Thus, when Jesus didn’t write much of anything and the apostles all seemed to be illiterate I assumed that this meant a lack of philosophical sophistication.

    Which means my question becomes this: Would you say that the Greek influence in Palestine was primarily philosophical in nature, or was is just other cultural elements of Greece that would appeal more to the pedestrian walk of life?

    Comment by Jeff G — July 30, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

  10. They are Mystery religions. They therefore share a common knowledge. It’s just that each people had its own culture and its own heritage and they would accordingly design their concepts uniquely. Judaism would of course differ from Greek, Egyptian or other cultures. When also Judaism got its Mystery religion through Christianity, its saviour god would reasonably be its deliverer, i.e. the Messiah!

    Gnosticism shared much with Neo-Platonism, which of course was similar to Platonism. And also early Christian apostles like Paul shared a lot of their views.

    Comment by Roger Viklund — July 31, 2014 @ 3:35 am

  11. Jeff, the caricature of the Greek philosophy being all about reason at the expense of revelation was another idea that early modern Protestant scholars promoted (again the Hanegraaff book goes over all this). With Plato linking his allegories to the mysteries strongly suggests that his notion of ascent was revelatory. The revelatory point at Eleusis was when the hierophant revealed the sacred objects, a moment called epopteia. Plato uses the term all the time, such as the coming out of the cave. Many Jews and Christians described seeing God in these terms as well, when one acquired the total transcendent knowledge.

    So while study without inspiration is a problem, Plato was not advocating such.

    In terms of the influence on Palestine, again, I don’t have much expertise. I would just say that Philo, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Christ, sounds rather Christian: for instance, calling the Logos the Son of God.

    Roger, thanks for the input.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 31, 2014 @ 10:45 am

  12. Thanks Steve for another great post! I was more or less familiar with the other 6 parts, but this was new.

    To the other poster, I too was a Nibley-phile for a long time, but have since diverged in a few areas. He himself in later years said his views had since changed on some of the things he published before. He still exerts a powerful influence on me…if not so much for his writings, then more so because of his biography…one of the best!

    Anyways, back to Plato, I did not know about the Eleusinian aspect of his dialogues…completely fascinating; and I am now reading online articles about it. Seeing his hidden allusions to it in Symposium sheds new light on it; ans a pattern for how the later Christian Fathers alluded to the Christian temple mysteries.

    I did know of the recent research on stychometry, that shows his original writings were likely divided into 12 parts, perhaps showing a hidden affinity and discipleship to Pythagoras.

    Comment by cadams — July 31, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

  13. Thanks Steve. I’ve read the Clementine Recognitions and was very impressed. Don’t we seem to be repeating history? Didn’t the ancient church decide that there was no such thing as Prisca Teologia in rejecting Platonism as they again decided to reject it when the hermetic tradition was recovered during the renaissance? There seems to be a dogged determination not to accept anything that would oppose the originality of Christianity.

    Comment by Rich Allen — August 7, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

  14. Rich, yes, that is a prevalent attitude.

    And thanks, cadams. I thought the Platonic connections to the mysteries were also interesting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 7, 2014 @ 6:45 pm


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